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Williams turning tragedy into dream

By Brian Paglia

bpaglia@news-daily.com

On a mundane day in November 1997, then-Forest Park basketball player Demetrice Williams intended to prepare for a game against Mt. Zion following the familiar, comforting routine he performed before every tip-off. After school, Williams would go home, take a nap, eat a meal, then return to Forest Park. The ritual preceded every game of Williams' basketball career, during which he became the school's all-time leading scorer and returned it to the state playoffs after an eight-year drought.

It's the one day when that ritual was disturbed, that November day when someone interrupted Williams' nap to break the news that his closest friend, teammate and backcourt partner Michael Reid had died in a car accident, that left an indelible mark upon Williams. The mark lingered throughout Williams' basketball pursuits after Forest Park, throughout years at South Alabama, the Fresno Heatwave of the American Basketball Association and professional teams in England, Austria and Italy.

Basketball helped Williams discover the world. Without it, he would never have been there riding a camel under the shadows of the pyramids in Egypt. Without it, he might not have the means to organize the Michael Reid Scholarship Basketball Tournament at Forest Park today. The all-day tournament comprised of six teams in a double-elimination format became a vision and dream of Williams' since the day he lost his best friend.

Twelve hours of basketball in tribute to Michael Reid, but also as a means to lift Forest Park's profile amongst basketball recruiters so more Panthers might receive the same opportunities and experiences as Williams.

"After I was done playing basketball, I always wanted to come back to my high school and have a tournament," Williams said. "Since my best friend passed away, they had a scholarship fund for him, but it never generated much money. I was thinking of a name for my tournament, so why not name it for Michael Reid.

"And another thing, Forest Park went to the state playoffs two years in a row," Williams said, "and a lot of guys aren't getting seen, they're not doing anything. I was thinking, 'Let me do something for them to help the student-athletes,' to help them do what I did playing Division I basketball and go see the world."

During the 1997-98 season, Williams, a junior point guard then, was averaged nearly 30 points a game. He burst onto the scene abruptly, and he did it with Reid.

They first met as opponents. Reid went to Forest Park Middle School. Williams attended Babb Middle. They introduced themselves for the first time on the court, and their first encounters were compelling. One game Williams overshadowed Reid with a stellar performance. But Reid won the next round.

When they arrived at Forest Park, they both earned starting roles in the backcourt as freshman under coach Lamar Ogelsby. They began to build the Panthers back into a competitive brand for a program that had gone without a playoff appearance since 1991.

And as their basketball partnership flourished, so did their friendship. They were stuck to the hard court. They shared tricks. They brought their families together. Reid often crashed at Williams' home.

"He got along with everybody," Williams remembers. "He was very friendly. He joked around a lot, so he had that Dwight Howard-type smile on the court. Just fun to be around.

"We got so close with his family. We used to take summer trips with his family, going here and there. Our families just got real close. He was a real outgoing and sociable person."

While Williams slumbered at home, peacefully in Step No. 1 of his pre-game ritual, Reid crashed his car violently. The steering wheel knocked against Reid's sternum, aggravating his acute asthma. Just three games into what would develop into Willams' finest season, his on-court cohort and off-court ally was gone.

"Everybody went to Michael's house after we found out," Williams said. "We sat there and prayed. Everybody was there the whole night."

The rest of that season Williams averaged nearly 30 points a game. His senior season he averaged 25 points, eclipsed the school career scoring record with over 2,000 career points, brought Forest Park back to the state playoffs and earned a full scholarship to South Alabama.

Under coaches Bob Weltlich and current Arkansas coach John Pelphrey, Williams went to the NCAA Tournament once and the Jaguars won two conference titles. He averaged 11.3 points, 3.6 assists and almost two steals a game as a four-year starter.

Then Williams left the South to join the Fresno Heatwave in Fresno, Calif., in 2003. From there came one-year stops in England, Austria and Italy. He joined a traveling team in Egypt for a season. Basketball had taken a boy born in Albany, Ga., schooled in Forest Park, and showed him the world.

Williams, 28 now and with two children, is a man. He aspires to coach someday. These days, he devotes his efforts to build up the Michael Reid Scholarship Basketball Tournament into an annual affair, supplemented with camps and personal training.

But as he worked out at the Forest Park gymnasium these past two years, watching back-to-back Panthers teams make the playoffs but send just one player to college, Williams resolved to work toward enabling Forest Park's community to seize the opportunities Williams feels fortunate to have received.

"I want to help other people do that," Williams. "I was the first one from my family to graduate from college and do stuff like that, that was the best, just to tell them about those experiences.

"I never knew I'd be able to do that playing basketball. Basketball allowed to me see the world and do things I never thought I'd do."